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Redefining the California Dream for the 21st Century

by: Robert Cruickshank

Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 11:24:03 AM PDT


For nearly a hundred years, the "California Dream" has had a particular meaning: owning a detached single-family home with a bit of land around it, being able to drive anywhere you need or want to go without encountering traffic, and with enough money left over to spend on soaking up the sunshine. The cheap and widely available Model T crystallized this dream in the 1920s, combined with cheap and widely available land. The Depression wound up intensifying the dream, as Californians in bread lines and rural relief camps yearned all the more strongly for that dream they glimpsed in the Roaring Twenties. World War II provided the jobs and savings to make it a reality, and by the 1950s and 1960s the California Dream was in its Golden Age. Any white family that held down a steady job could buy a home and have more than enough left over to fill its garage with cars and its rooms with consumer baubles.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Golden Age had dimmed, as roads became crowded and housing became expensive. In response Californians tried all kinds of methods to prolong this version of their dream, from Prop 13 to NIMBY activism against new projects that were seen as ruining the detached suburban paradise, to reasserting the automobile and the freeway.

Here in the 21st century, though, this California Dream seems to have finally run its course. In Southern California especially - always the true home of this dream, its Bay Area expressions notwithstanding - cheap and available land simply no longer exists. Roads of all kinds are hopelessly clogged and new freeway lanes fill with traffic as soon as the ribbons are cut. Housing prices are beyond the reach of most Californians; only creative and ultimately dishonest lending supported real estate these last five years.

It's fitting then that as the 20th century California Dream is dying, the 21st century Dream is slowly being born. And as two important articles in Monday's Los Angeles Times suggest, SoCal is the birthplace of this new dream. But the old attitudes die hard, and in their meeting lies the root of the political battles that will define our adult lives.

Robert Cruickshank :: Redefining the California Dream for the 21st Century
Politics, of course, were the keys to the earlier California Dream. It took the Progressive coalition of labor, reform Democrats and Republicans, farmers, and middle-class professionals to break the power of the railroads and the large landowners over California's economy in the 1910s; without this the easy construction of public roads and mass ownership of private homes would simply not have been possible.

Just as important was the political revolution of 1958. Sick of Republican do-nothing rule, Californians turned en masse to liberal Democrats like Pat Brown and Jesse Unruh to manage and preserve their prosperity, to build the freeways and aqueducts that sustained their suburban dream, to build the schools and colleges that would allow their kids to live the dream as well.

But when this dream ran into trouble in the 1970s, Californians faced a crossroads. Would they redefine the terms of the dream, to be more inclusive, but less focused on freeways, cars, and the single family home? Or would they find ways to artificially prolong the 1950s for as long as possible by protecting the existing homeowners at the expense of those on the outside and those not yet born? As we know, the latter course was chosen. Prop 13 created a homeowners' veto over virtually all of state government, ensuring that California would never be able to do anything with its government that did not meet with the approval of a vocal minority of self-interested homeowners.

The 1978 system was about more than a tax revolt. It was about preserving the 1950s vision of white suburbia from any and all efforts to change it. Although Prop 13 wasn't responsible for NIMBY efforts to kill affordable housing, or new hospitals, or LA subway lines, or urban density, it was done at the same time and for the same reasons.

The consequences are clear to us all. Our health care system is collapsing. College is unaffordable. Our roads are gridlocked and alternatives are only sporadically available. Our climate is changing for the worse - and Republicans are working to prolong all of those problems, and delay their costs for a few decades. California life has become unaffordable - only 60% of Californians own a home, with only 47% of LA County residents being homeowners. Us younger folks don't ever expect to be able to afford a house.

Which brings me to the first of the LA Times articles, "Southern California is Becoming a Tight Fit," which focuses on how multi-family homes like condos and apartments are now being built in larger numbers than single-family homes. Economics are the main force behind this:

Condos and apartments are cheaper to build than houses, largely because less land is required per unit.

They are also cheaper to sell or rent, and with the median price of a single-family residence in Orange County at $724,000, many potential buyers can afford only condos, [Kristine Thalman of the Cal Building Industry Association] said. They also appeal to younger buyers.

"They can live in a high-rise, go downstairs to a bar and restaurant and go to the baseball game," she said

Greater urban density, then, IS the revised California Dream. For a wide spectrum of Californians to ever be able to afford to own their own home - long recognized as one of the keys to economic security in America - then we need more apartments and condos.

The environmental benefits of urban density should be obvious. If you can walk to the shops, to the library, or to public transportation, you're driving less and thereby helping mitigate global warming. For many of us younger Californians, this is a preferred way of living. I much prefer living in an apartment building to the ranch home in Orange County I grew up in, being able to walk to where I need to go instead of having to drive everywhere. The popularity of cities like San Francisco and Oakland and central LA with people my age is proof I'm not just a lone nut.

But in neighborhoods where this new density is being built, like Studio City and Sherman Oaks, residents who still cling to the 20th century version of the California Dream are trying to strangle the new 21st century dream in its infancy:

In Studio City, where mid-century houses and small apartment buildings are being replaced by mega-condo projects, residents are worried that the village-like nature of the community will be squashed under a crush of large new buildings and thousands of new residents....

"We're just trying very hard to preserve some semblance of human-scale life here," said Barbara Burke, who is a vice president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council but who said she was speaking as a homeowner. "The congestion is huge."

The idea that only low-density suburbs provide "human-scale life" is belied by the experiences of cities from Paris to Philadelphia, from Manhattan to Mexico City. But the notion that suburban homeowners have some sort of absolute right to that lifestyle, that they have a political veto over any attempts to shift urban planning in a newer direction, remains strong. Until we can convince these homeowners that they have nothing to fear from the new density, that only with density can any kind of California Dream realistically exist in the 21st century, they're going to continue to fight us, and try and prolong the 1950s as long as they can, no matter the cost.

This LA Times piece raises an important point, however - that greater density in SoCal also tends to bring greater traffic congestion. What is BADLY needed is an alternative to the car - public transportation that serves these new densities, that is quick, efficient, and effective in getting residents where they want or need to go.

And that takes to the other article I wanted to highlight, also from the Times: "LA Could Look to Denver For its Transit Template." The article explains the Denver metro area's 2004 decision to begin the FasTracks project:

In November 2004, voters in the Denver metro region went to the polls and, much to the surprise of some political observers, decided to tax themselves to begin the nation's largest ongoing expansion of mass transit.

If all goes as planned, the Denver region is expected to build 119 miles of light rail and commuter rail by 2016. Among the projects are six new lines from Denver to the suburbs, including one to the airport, the extension of two other light-rail lines and a new rapid transit bus line.

It's a relatively unusual approach. Constrained by a lack of money, most cities build one or maybe two lines at a time. In Denver, they're betting the entire system can be built at once.

Building it all at once is costly, but key - instead of a piecemeal line by line approach, an entire system provides a ready network that will allow residents of new urban density to move around the region with a significantly reduced dependence on the automobile.

Could LA adopt a similar approach? The article notes that in 1980 voters had attempted to do exactly that, voting to tax themselves to build RTD's (now MTA) ambitious rail and subway plan. But this plan immediately ran into resistance from the NIMBY forces, who successfuly asserted a homeowner veto over this farsighted plan. LA's subway to the sea was halted in its tracks by Westside opposition, for example, in the mid-1980s. But that opposition has now disappeared, with Henry Waxman working to lift the federal injunction on tunneling in the area, and cities like Beverly Hills clamoring for a rail line extension to their town.

The problem now facing LA is financial. The article notes that Antonio Villaraigosa has kicked around the idea of bringing a financing measure to voters. But why shouldn't the state be expected to help develop the 21st century California Dream, as it did in the 20th century?

Localities cannot build the infrastructure that the new California Dream needs. The state must help. Democrats understand this, but Republicans actively are fighting it. And that brings us to the ultimate point I wanted to make, to show how this new California Dream is already at the root of our politics and will be for some time.

If we are to build an affordable, economically secure, and prosperous 21st century California Dream, we need new infrastructure investment. We need a robust regional rail system for SoCal. We need expansion of BART and a revived MUNI. We need high speed rail. We need clean buses.

Republicans, however, want none of this. To voters they present a face of defending the homeowner veto, the 1978 system that says the 1950s version of the dream will be maintained forever. But in reality they want something much darker. To California Republicans, their goal is instead a homeowner aristocracy. Where government exists merely to protect those lucky few who own homes and can service that debt - and nobody else. They actively fight efforts to make homeownership affordable, to make transportation more accesible. They want to shackle Californians to their cars to benefit their oil company friends, and lock the majority of Californians out of homeownership out of selfish greed. They use the budget fight to pursue this agenda, seeking to gut environmental legislation as well as public transportation.

As Democrats, as California progressives, it is our task to fight back against this. Our task is to help build the 21st century California Dream - a sustainable society where our agricultural lands are protected so that we can eat locally, where we live in new urban densities dependent on our feet, our bikes, our trains, so that we don't ruin the climate we stayed her to enjoy. A California where people of all classes and racial/ethnic backgrounds have the opportunity to own a home and experience the economic security that offers. This dream suffuses our politics and our personal goals. California must adapt if it is to survive. Our job is to lead that project to fruition.

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Should probably add (8.00 / 4)
This doesn't mean nobody can live in a single-family detached home, of course they can. Instead we need to reorient public policy and land planning to favor urban density projects. Residents of a SFH in the Valley benefit from public transportation and rebuilt sewer lines too.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

Robert (8.00 / 1)
this is a fantastic piece.  Fixing our state's infrastructure, particularly transportation will not be cheap.  However, it is about investing in things to improve our quality of life.  Moving out further and further is unsustainable.

Thanks (8.00 / 2)
You're right about it being a quality of life issue, and that's why I like the "California Dream" frame. I cannot imagine that the people sitting on the 91 in rush hour, commuting from their home in Moreno Valley to their job in Irvine, are all that happy. They'd much prefer to live closer, but can't because they have to "drive to qualify" - head further inland to find affordable housing. Obviously this isn't sustainable - we can't reasonably expect people to commute from Blythe to Irvine.

And it's also about accessibility. As the price of a car commute soars, that puts homeownership out of reach of still more Californians. California faces both a quality of life crisis and an affordability crisis, and the progressive solution is the only one that can resolve both in the broadest possible way.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave


[ Parent ]
High Density (2.00 / 1)
A well written piece, that unfortunately skips a couple of things.  First, people who live in high density neighborhoods score lower on academic tests,are more likely to commit crimes and generally are unhappier with their lives and less optimistic about the future,  This is true in other countries, many of whom have followed a different growth pattern than the United States.  We have a problem of too many people in California, but convincing people to live in condo's and apartments has a lot of problems that go with it.

Um, what? (8.00 / 3)
I study cities for a living and haven't ever seen a reputable study that justifies that claim. What MAY be happening is a correlation of high density with high rates of poverty, which we DO know is linked to low academic achievement and higher rates of crime. But that linkage of density and poverty is a specific product of a particular point in time in the 20th century, when outside of older East Coast cities and SF, only the poor lived in dense areas. Since the 1980s and since 2000 in particular this has changed significantly, and density is much less correlated to income.

I mean, are you really trying to argue that cities like Manhattan and states like New Jersey, with lots of high density neighborhoods, are stupider, more criminal, and more depressed? Come on.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave


[ Parent ]
Duh, clearly (0.00 / 0)
New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Paris and Berlin are full of depressed stupid people. I mean jeez, just look at how unproductive they are.

[ Parent ]
Too many people in California? (0.00 / 0)
I think this is one of the misconceptions what skews this whole debate over urban development in the state.  California's average population density ranks 12th in the U.S. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_population_density), around the same as states like Illinois and Pennsylvania.  It is roughly 1/5th the population density of "dense" states like New Jersey.  

I have a feeling that this viewpoint is mostly driven by the prevalence of the "car culture" here, with peoples' views of the relative density of an area being mostly determined by how bad the traffic is.  Any long-term solution to make California more "liveable" for its citizens necessarily requires addressing this issue--that the "car culture" becomes increasingly a drain on the lifestyle of Californians as density increases.  This will become even more true as we come upon peak oil (which will be soon), when it will become utterly unaffordable.

At this point, the debate over increased urban density is not IF urban density is less than ideal, but if it is worse than the existing suburban sprawl we currently have.  

I would caution applying any study done by the U.N. on "dense cities" to guide planning of California because of the absence of data on suburban lifestyle by comparison.  The "car culture" of (particularly) suburban southern California is somewhat uncommon in other countries (and notably different from low density rural areas in the U.S.), and comparison between low density areas in CA and those in other countries are thus likely to be invalid.


[ Parent ]
Suggestion (5.00 / 1)
If you want to see studies on the issue, go to UNhabitat.org which every year publishes studies of the problems confronting the worlds major cities and has covered this issue in several reports including 2005-06.  But there are many more if you really want to do the research.  The problem is that most of the worlds major cities are overcrowded going back to the days of everyone hiding behind the walls of a castle and societies have constantly looked for ways to modify the impacts because in some cities there is no alternative to people living close together.  You will find attempts by famous architects like Le Courbisior who came up with the suggestion of putting mini parks in the middle of apartment or condo complexes to be shared by residents to Van Leyden who was the first to push for rapid transit options around multi family units in Europe, but the impact of families living so close together is universal and shows up across economic lines throughout the world.  Not that everyone is a failure and of course some people are phenomenally successful, but if study overall results and make the only differentiation the type of community people grew up in, density matters in a negative way.  From a political point, Estes Kefauver also talked about this decades ago when he ran for President and made some good suggestions for making housing available to everyone.  Basically his ideas were similar to the idea you hear nowadays about government funding universal broadband.  Kefauver said that if government could help people access the tools of communication, we wouldn't have the push for overcrowding in our cities.  Of course in the end it still all comes down to overpopulation.

Awesome piece! (0.00 / 0)
I'd MUCH RATHER live in a small apartment in downtown L.A. or Long Beach than stuck in the isolated suburban enclave deep in the heart of the Christian Republic of Texas that I am now!

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